Would you rather have a week without coffee or a week without Wi-Fi? Most people (75%) would forgo coffee. Clearly, mobile access is an inherent part of our personal and professional lives, and we apparently need all the speed and capacity we can get. Half of all networking devices will be mobile by 2015, and businesses are planning major increases in wireless coverage, growing their access points by more than 20% by 2015, according to Infonetics.
The upside to growing mobile access is tremendous, but it also creates challenges for carriers that need to meet the need for coverage and capacity. The most prevalent way of adding capacity is to buy more spectrum, especially as deployment of mobile wireless devices grows. Unfortunately, obtaining spectrum is an expensive and lengthy process. For carriers to meet short-term customer demand for coverage and capacity there is one solution: leverage a mix of technologies, such as small cells and Wi-Fi. But recognizing this solution is only the first step. Why should carriers deploy these technologies and what challenges could interfere with their desire to avoid spectrum congestion?
Although each market and region has its own unique considerations, small cell deployment and Wi-Fi offloads could have a positive impact on many operators' overall network capabilities. Small cells are a vital element to 3G data offloading, and many mobile network operators see small cells as necessary for managing LTE-Advanced spectrum more efficiently. Small cell technology can improve coverage in previously inaccessible areas and provide additional network capacity. Wi-Fi offloading takes mobile data from cellular networks to Wi-Fi and is another increasingly used option to ease congestion. According to the Wireless Broadband Association, by 2017 60% of carrier network traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi. To improve connectivity indoors, carriers can also integrate small cell and Wi-Fi hotspots.
As networks start catching up with end-user demand, some analysts argue that Wi-Fi offloading, small cell deployment and a mixture of both could lose favor with carriers. It's true that if you could keep the data usage levels at where they are now, you could probably get some breathing room. But usage isn't slowing down any time soon. One billion new smartphones shipped last year, and by 2020, 26 billion devices are expected to be connected to the internet. Therefore, the demand will always be there for an alternative to cellular networks, be it Wi-Fi, small cells or an integration of both, as the battle for the digital dollar and data traffic continues.
Of course, ultimately each carrier's strategy on this topic will come down to economics, balancing the challenges of managing these technologies and the cost efficiency of moving to hybrid architecture. Providing Wi-Fi service may not appear to be difficult, but there are a variety of issues, ranging from dealing with potential interference with other Wi-Fi networks to roaming agreements. Implementing Wi-Fi in high-density areas such as stadiums, trains or coffee shops is exceedingly complex and challenging to get right.